Social work students explore Richmond history at the intersection of race and mental health

Social work students explore Richmond history at the intersection of race and mental health

“We want social workers to understand the systemic and community context necessary for mental wellness, including the ways in which social work has upheld white supremacy,” organizer M. Alex Wagaman said.

Photo: Brian McNeill

By Brian McNeill

Princess Blanding, sister of Marcus-David Peters, a 24-year-old black man shot and killed by a Richmond police officer in May, stood before a crowd of Virginia Commonwealth University School of Social Work students, faculty and alumni.

Her message: People experiencing mental health crisis deserve help, and we need to break down the stigma preventing them from getting it.

“Think about some of those words that prevent a whole lot of us and our family members and our friends from actually saying, ‘I need help. I’m going through something,’” she said. “The brain is the only major organ in our very complex system that, when it is in distress, we ostracize them, we pass judgment on them, we treat them as outcasts.”

Peters, a high school biology teacher and VCU graduate, was unarmed, naked and undergoing what Blanding described as her brother’s first mental health crisis on May 14. As he charged the police officer, the officer tried unsuccessfully to stop him with a Taser, and then shot him.

“Marcus needed help,” Blanding said. “He didn’t need, nor did he deserve, death.”

Blanding was a keynote speaker Tuesday at “Richmond [Re]Visited 2018: The Intersections of Race & Mental Health,” an event organized by the VCU School of Social Work Black Lives Matter Student-Alumni-Faculty Collective that explores Richmond’s history and provides context for issues affecting social workers and community members.

The event, now in its fourth year, focused on a theme of mental health and racial justice.

M. Alex Wagaman, Ph.D., a member of the collective and an assistant professor in the School of Social Work, said the goal of this year’s event was to help participants — students, faculty, staff and alumni — gain a “better understanding of the ways in which our country’s history of violence toward people of African ancestry is a form of intense trauma that has never been healed.

“We want social workers to understand the systemic and community context necessary for mental wellness, including the ways in which social work has upheld white supremacy,” Wagaman said. “And we want everyone to identify ways that they can practice social work through a racial justice lens, including the dismantling of white supremacy in our communities and the organizations where we work.”

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